Chris Van Allsburg has been called the Accidental Artist. As he tells the story, his decision to go to the school of art at the University of Michigan was arbitrary and casual. He didn’t take art in high school; in fact he says “my interests and aptitude through high school were in math and science.” Once in art school he gravitated toward sculpture because of his days as a young boy building models. Although sculpture is a long way from illustrating children’s books it did include a crucial first step – “I explored the ideas I had about the objects I wanted to make by first drawing them.”
Unlike many children’s book people, Chris was not devoted to books as a child. He read a fair amount, his favorites being Harold and the Purple Crayon and Bartholomew and the Oobleck, but again he was much more into model building than books. So he left art school after 7 years with not a thought given to illustrating books and immediately set up a sculpture studio. He was having some success, but also drawing a few things on the side for his own amusement, when his dealer asked to show his drawings to a representative of the Whitney Museum. His drawings did get into a show there and that led to his wife taking his drawings around to some publishers. There was some interest but they all wanted him to illustrate other people stories, which he did not find appealing. (In fact he has collaborated with only one author, Mark Helprin, and he was not satisfied with that experience. “I thought the pictures I contributed did not always add a great deal, and for some readers’ imaginations they may have even been limiting.”) But when the start of the story of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi popped into his head and he drew the pictures for it, the door was already open at Houghton Mifflin and the rest is history.
To win a Caldecott Honor for your first book could easily ruin someone who had had that as their life’s goal. But to Chris Van Allsburg it still probably seemed like a hobby that had got out of hand. He was not so concerned with the children’s book world but still obsessed with the process that had driven him when he first began sculpting – taking something compelling from his wild, fertile imagination and gradually, painstakingly bringing it into the real world – this time in pencil and paper rather than clay or wood. As he says, “if it had been possible or practical to indulge my obsessive nature, I would currently be working on the 35th revised edition of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. I’m confident that it would by now be a truly extraordinary volume.”
Chris does not keep up with what’s going on in children’s books. His ideas come from that imagination that is a bit bizarre but that also seems to speak to others of deep issues at a subconscious level. For his art he pays more attention to the old Masters. His most recent find was an exhibition of Piranesi’s prison etchings, an Italian artist of the mid 1700s. He also emulates the old artists by using people in his life as models for characters in his books. His brother-in-law’s dog was the model for Fritz in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. His wife Lisa was the model for Minna Shaw in The Widow’s Broom. David Macaulay was Santa Claus in The Polar Express. His daughters Anna and Sophia were the boys in Zathura. Chris himself was the model for the captain in The Wretched Stone. He even used one daughter’s algebra teacher as Annie Edson Taylor in The Queen of the Falls.
Chris has not done a school visit in 10 years. He doesn’t feel like he is good at it and has a hard time figuring out how to simultaneously hold the interest of both six-year-olds and eleven-year-olds. He still remembers one unsettling school visit in which, no matter what he did to amuse or engage the students, they didn’t make a sound during his talk. When he apologized to his hostess for being such a disappointing guest she told him that “the children were not permitted to make a sound when visitors came to speak.”!
It has been a while since we have had a new Van Allsburg but never fear! He is working on “a chapter book about a young mechanical genius who grows up to become the ‘King of Toys’, but ultimately finds himself trading his worldly success for the chance to be the conductor, for eternity, on an extraordinary train he has created (a train which I have written about before).” He is also working on a book “about a young girl who discovers her new diary has a peculiar power that tests and liberates her imagination.” Imagine that, a book about imagination from Chris Van Allsburg!